RALEIGH – What’s more exhilarating for an athlete: Having the home crowd erupt after a crucial play in a big game? Or making a hostile crowd fall silent on the road?
“Obviously, I would like to hear a sold-out Garden,” Mika Zibanejad said Wednesday. “That Game 7 (against the Pittsburgh Penguins on May 15) was unbelievable, but it’s a pretty good feeling to hear a quiet away building, as well.”
The New York Rangers are hoping for the latter Thursday, when they’ll travel to Carolina for Game 5 of their second-round playoff series.
The Hurricanes are 6-0 at PNC Arena this postseason, winning all four against the Boston Bruins in the first round before taking the first two against the Blueshirts last week.
“It’s loud,” Rangers forward Tyler Motte said. “They play really well there. They come out with energy, as we saw in Games 1 and 2. They can play a dynamic style. They can also try and play a physical game, as well. But they just play really well in that building and we’ve got to match that intensity.”
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While the Canes been excellent on home ice, they’ve yet to win on the road. The Rangers captured Games 3 and 4 at Madison Square Garden to even the series at two games apiece.
Whether that momentum will travel south or be thwarted by the rowdy Caniacs is a point of curiosity heading into Game 5. But what’s certain is that the only way the Blueshirts are going to advance to the Eastern Conference Finals is if they win one in Raleigh.
“You want to match their intensity at the start,” defenseman Justin Braun said. “We know they come out hard, especially here. So, we’ve got to be ready to go right from the drop of the puck. You don’t want to lose that momentum early.”
Crowd noise and the jolt it can provide for the home team is a hot topic, but being able to seek out preferred matchups with the benefit of last change may be an even bigger factor for Carolina coach Rod Brind’Amour.
While many bench bosses opt to go strength vs. strength, sending their top line out against the No. 1 unit of their opponent, the Hurricanes operate differently. They have a few highly skilled forwards in their top six, particularly Sebastian Aho, Andrei Svechnikov and rookie Seth Jarvis. But in many respects, their team is built around their shutdown third line of Nino Niederreiter, Jordan Staal and Jesper Fast.
None of those three scored more than Niederreiter’s 44 points this season, but they’re each among the better defensive forwards in the NHL. And Staal is a faceoff wizard, ranking first among centers who are still alive with a 62.7% win rate in these playoffs.
That’s why Brind’Amour prioritizes getting them on the ice against the line he considers most dangerous for the opposition, which has been Zibanejad’s so far in this series.
“It’s a fun challenge,” Zibanejad said. “They’ve done a good job for them all year.”
That strategy effectively limited Zibanejad’s line with Chris Kreider and Frank Vatrano in the first two games, as they failed to produce a goal while being out-chanced, 11-6, according to Natural Stat Trick. They didn’t allow a goal, either, but that’s a tradeoff Brind’Amour and the Canes were happy to make.
Rangers coach Gerard Gallant was able to create some separation in the two games at MSG by avoiding Carolina’s shutdown line on restarts, which led to a 68.64% xGF while Zibanejad and Kreider were on ice together in Games 3 and 4. But he won’t have the last-change advantage Thursday.
“I’m okay with it,” Gallant said. “It doesn’t bother me a whole lot. Obviously, that’s the matchup they want. When they get the chance to do it, they’ll do it. And if I can get away from it a little bit, I’ll get away from it. But I’m not going to sit Mika on the bench because of the Staal line.”
If five-on-five offense is hard to come by, it’ll be helpful if the Rangers maintain the upper hand on special teams.
They scored a power-play goal in each of the last two games, with the PP looking especially potent in Tuesday’s 4-1 win in Game 4. But more notably, the Blueshirts have gone 9-for-9 on successful penalty kills.
“Make it hard for them to gain entries, I think, is step one,” Motte said of the PK. “Being good when we can pressure on opportunities is big, as well, and then just maintaining structure and working as four-man unit. That’s really what works. … If you win special teams battles over the course of a series and in every game, I think you have a pretty good chance to win.”
Of course, the No. 1 X-factor for the Rangers remains in net.
After an up-and-down first-round series, Igor Shesterkin looks locked in for round two. He’s posted an eye-popping .959 save percentage through four games and has been the Hurricanes’ primary source of frustration.
One standout road performance from the Hart Trophy finalist could dictate the outcome of the series. Historically, the team that wins Game 5 in a 2-2 scenario advances 78.8% of the time, according to Hockey Reference.
But while the Rangers have an ace up their sleeve in Shesterkin, their focus remains on playing the complete game they showed they can play in New York.
They entered having lost three of four to Carolina in regular season while often looking over-matched. But with each passing playoff game, the aura of invincibility has dissipated.
“I can’t stress this enough: This is a good team we’re playing against, but I think we might have shown a little bit too much respect in the regular season,” Zibanejad said. “Their forecheck is huge for them, and I feel like the same thing goes for us. They’re playing fast, but I think if we can try to do a good job to disturb their forecheck and not feed into their transition, I think we give ourselves a pretty good chance. And, obviously, we have Igor back there.
“So, it’s just understanding that we’re a good team, we’re trusting ourselves, we’re trusting that the way we want to play — and when we do that over a longer period of time, we give ourselves the best chance to win.”
NY Rangers projected lineup: Game 5 at Hurricanes
When: Thursday, May 26 at 7 p.m.
Where: PNC Arena in Raleigh
TV/Radio: ESPN/98.7 FM
First line → Chris Kreider (LW) • Mika Zibanejad (C) • Frank Vatrano (RW)
Second line → Artemi Panarin (LW) • Ryan Strome (C) • Andrew Copp (RW)
Third line → Alexis Lafrenière (LW) • Filip Chytil (C) • Tyler Motte (RW)
Fourth line → Kaapo Kakko (LW) • Kevin Rooney (C) • Ryan Reaves (RW)
Top pair → K’Andre Miller (L) • Jacob Trouba (R)
Second pair → Ryan Lindgren (L) • Adam Fox (R)
Third pair → Justin Braun (L) • Braden Schneider (R)
Starter → Igor Shesterkin
Backup → Alexandar Georgiev
Healthy scratches: F Jonny Brodzinski, F Julien Gauthier, D Libor Hájek, F Dryden Hunt, F Greg McKegg and D Patrik Nemeth
Injured: F Sammy Blais (right ACL) and F Barclay Goodrow (lower body)
NOTE: This lineup is subject to change
Vincent Z. Mercogliano is the New York Rangers beat reporter for the USA TODAY Network. Read more of his work at lohud.com/sports/rangers/ and follow him on Twitter @vzmercogliano.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism